A Teachable Moment

Former local teacher union pesident Morty Rosenfeld periodically attempts to make sense of the increasingly senseless world of public education.

Archive for October, 2012

Union Members and Romney/Ryan

There are some union members who are dissatisfied with what the Obama administration has accomplished in the last four years. Actually, I count myself among them. There are some, however, who are either toying with or have decided to vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket. I’ve spoken to some of them, good union members, active members in some cases, who are so fed up with conditions in their schools and the economic state of our nation that they want to believe that Romney/Ryan offer a hopeful alternative. I submit that it is impossible to reamin a good union member and vote for Romney/Ryan because Romney/Ryan are pledged to weaken unions even further than their friends have already done. Romney, in recent days, has been openly bashing teacher unions, while professing love and respect for teachers. Just yesterday he was bellowing to a crowd about he was going to see to it that there is a national right to work law. Jeremy Gantz in an In These Times article analyzes the Romney/Ryan platform and what it means to labor. Read this piece, read the Republican platform, and if you still believe it’s possible to vote Romney/Ryan and be a good union member, meaning you deeply believe in the right of all workers to form unions, the right of those unions in both the public and private sectors to bargain collectively over wages and working conditions, if you believe in that and still think you can be a good union member voting for Romney/Ryan, I’d like to know how.

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Kids Thinking of Gaming the System

While I was thinking of what I would write about today, I got an email from a colleague who reported a conversation he overheard between among a group of sixth grade middle school students in our district.

“It’s very easy, if you don’t like your teacher, just fail the second test on purpose, and the teacher will get in trouble.”

What the kids were clearly talking about is the pretest teachers of many subjects were forced to give at the beginning of the school year to set a baseline against which to judge the academic growth of their student in June. So, add to the list of stupidities inherent in the new teacher evaluation system the gaming of the system itself by eleven year olds.

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Fifteen or twenty years ago, I sat on a National Education Association of New York committee that was put together to make a strategic plan for the organization. I agreed to serve because the recruitment process for the committee employed rhetoric associated with the business world, enough at least to raise my suspicions. That was my first experience of a union meeting conducted by an outside facilitator who began with leading us in a discussion of our presumed need for a pithy mission statement. I seem to remember he used Dominoes Pizza as an example of what we were there to craft – A Pizza in 20 Minutes. When I questioned why we would want to do this, the poor man launched into a soliloquy on how organizations had to pay attention to their branding every bit as much as the makers of soft drinks.

Unions desperately clutched at such nonsensical panaceas and still do so as to be seen as attempting to deal with their decline, unwilling to face the fact that their fall into increasing irrelevance has been directly related to the abandonment of their organizing roots in favor of a service model which has them looking and behaving more like insurance companies than change agents committed to the betterment of working people.

I found myself thinking of those days as I read the Plainview Board of Education’s goals which include, “Involve the students, staff and community in the branding of the district as a premier district on Long Island.” Now we’re branding our school district, Madison Avenue language having seeped like a toxic plume into the world of public education, where it will be one more sign of the evaporation of any understanding of what the social function of schools is and what the expression “being educated” means. The curriculum may be shrinking, necessary resources may be unavailable due to a tax cap, the morale of the staff may continue to fall, kids may spend ever-increasing time on test preparation, teachers may be “developed” in one skill-robbing program after another, but we will be rebranded. I can hear it now. Plainview-Old Bethpage – We’re the real thing.

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Premier District?

If the way we evaluate the quality of our academic program is by our performance on state examinations and the number of AP papers our students write, we will truly never be the “premier” school district the Plainview Board of Education has set as one of their goals. Setting a goal of improving proficiency rates on state exams by two percent next year simply amplifies the pernicious effect New York’s testing regime has had on students and teachers. We can probably make our students two percent better test takers, but let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we will be on the road to becoming first in anything other than test taking. As we push student scores up and thereby the Annual Professional Performance Review ratings of teachers, we will further narrow the curriculum, further diminish student interest in the program and further debase the craft of teaching. As long as we need state test scores to tell us we’re a premier district, we will not be a premier district.

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The Racial Appeal

’ve been appalled at the stunning lack of respect shown to the President of the United States during this election cycle. Romney surrogates have repeatedly used racially encoded language to rev up that portion of the white male electorate that responds to that red meat. So we have Donald Trump still questioning whether Obama was born in America. Newt Gingrich confidently stating that Obama is not a “real president.” How he is lazy and doesn’t do much of the work associated with the presidency. John Sununu challenging Obama to think like an American. The appeal to racial prejudice is clear, and the level of disrespect for the office unparalleled. The message is President Obama is not like us. We need a president like us.

I’m disturbed that the mainstream media have not called the Romney campaign out on this obviously coordinated attack. I’ve been disturbed too by the lack of outrage from people I talk to about the campaign. Until yesterday, when at my customary breakfast at the Plainview Diner a guy sitting next to said, “Nice button,” referring to the Obama button I was wearing. I took the button off and gave it too him in view of Jose, the waiter at the counter who immediately expressed interest in it, taking it out of the hand of the guy I gave it to.

“Imagine I wear a button like that when I wait on some people come in here.”

“What do you mean?” I said.

“There’s one lady she come in and she see the President on the TV, she always say, ‘He should be killed.’”

At this point the Hispanic American manager joined our conversation and in viscerally angry tones talked about how disgusting it was to him that people disrespected our president, offering his perception that the Romney campaign was appealing to people who hate the president because he is black. “They hate Blacks and Hispanics these people. They have no respect for the President of the United States.”

How wonderfully ironic that these newest Americans are the defenders of the tradition of respecting the office of President even if you disagree with his policies, while those who wrap themselves in the flag and claim to be the purest Americans show their contempt for it. And we’re asked to believe that immigrants are ruining our country. They may be our only hope!

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I spoke briefly at an elementary school union meeting this morning, remaining to listen after I was done. At one point, the meeting turned to how much time teachers were out of their classes to attend training on programs they often have had not say in obtaining. I was struck by the anger these hard working people feel over being taken away from their work with kids. One of members reported that she has been pulled from her class so many times this year that one of her students asked her when the regular teacher was coming back, the child having confused the substitute with her assigned teacher. In this age when we want to measure everything, why don’t we develop a mathematical expression for the educational damage we are inflicting in our chase for better test results?

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More Evidence That Testing Is Not The Answer

Thank you to Stefanie Nelkens for pointing me to Peter Gray’s September 17 article in Psychology Today on the measurable decline in the creativity of America’s children. Quoting the research findings of College of William and Mary Professor Kuyng Kim, we read, that “…children have become less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” The creativity decline appears to have begun in the mid-eighties, interestingly the time when America’s latest round of public school bashing began and standardized testing and data driven education began to emerge as the dominant education ideology. Editorializing on Kim’s findings, Gray offers the following explanation for the creativity crisis. “Creativity is nurtured by freedom and stifled by the continuous monitoring, evaluation, adult-direction, and pressure to conform that restrict children’s lives today. “In the real world few questions have one right answer, few problems have one right solution; that’s why creativity is crucial to success in the real world.” I suspect the implementation of the Common Core is not going to do much to improve this situation.

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Thinking About Jobs

Jobs, jobs, jobs. Every candidate for office is appropriately talking about the need to create jobs. None is talking, however, about the possibility that it may not be possible to create good jobs for all of our citizens. Said another way, it may take less than our entire working age population to create all of the goods and services we need or want. The American genius of creating ever-increasing worker productivity may in fact be leading us to what 19th century idealists posited as a paradise, a leisure society in which machines create a boundless surplus that is equitably distributed to the members of society. Reading Cathrine Rampell’s disturbing article in the Times this morning on this subject reminded me of the evaporation of good paying, union, manufacturing jobs that has taken place over my lifetime. Rampell points to a similar disappearance taking place in the high tech world and leaves her readers thinking about unemployment differently than our leaders frame the issue. With America’s public schools increasingly seen as preparing students for employment, what do trends like Rampell reports suggest about out work?

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The Beginning of the End

It has been clear from the advent of New York’s current student testing regime and its connection to teacher evaluation that the only way to stop it and its destructive effect on the education of the state’s children was for the formation of a grand alliance between school administrators, parents, teachers and their unions. I was heartened to learn that the subject of over-testing will be coming up at the state PTA convention in November. At least one regional PTA unit is bringing a powerful resolution calling for a moratorium on high stakes testing and an end to the tying of exam results to the teacher evaluation process. The grand alliance is starting to form.

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The Reality Begins to Dawn

The absurdity of New York’s new teacher evaluation system has been a frequent subject of my writings. Now that we have the first year of tying student test scores to teacher evaluation, school districts throughout the state are abuzz with stories of how some of what have historically been judged to be the best teachers come up wanting when measured by the state’s statistical model. At a meeting of our state union’s board of directors I attended this weekend, speaker after speaker talked about the anger and frustration of teachers who see themselves as having been jobbed by the new system, punished for taking on difficult teaching assignments. Readers of Rockville Centre Principal Carol Burris, find her saying very much the same thing on behalf of building principals. Parents are beginning to wonders why the evaluation of teachers has their children sitting for even more exams, exams that are designed to show that students know little of a subject before they receive instruction. The time is at hand for teachers, parents and administrators to come together to end this folly.

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